He Said She Said (Or, Even Animals Lie)

I find February to be the most difficult of months. The novelty of winter has worn off by this point, and while I’m happy to be able to walk outside without having to check pollen counts or carry an assortment of medications to keep my lungs from seizing, the cold has sunk somewhere deeper than my skin, into my bones, into their marrow. I will live here all my life and never get used to this.

It is in February that I begin to think this chill won’t wear off until July, and I begin to wonder what kind of people such winters breed. All the months stuck inside with one another must change the way we speak. What might we say had we large warm open spaces to avoid each other in, instead of small cool rooms where keeping the peace is paramount? What might we say if we had miles to travel between us, if we could drive with our windows open, the air hot and humid on our faces? What might we say in such sun?

This frigid week I’ve been indoors, watching my one year old son learning to imitate. Give him a brush and he will try to brush your hair; give him a spoon and he will put it down towards the bowl, making scooping motions just above the bowl’s contents. Clap your hands together and watch him gently pat his tiny palms together in a soundless motion. Cough, and he will try to cough louder, especially if you laugh. He is playacting to learn about the world, to learn which actions will gain approval or disapproval. A kind of deceit, I suppose, although his fakery is harmless. But watching him I wonder if purposeful deceit must always be part of our human nature, if here I am seeing the seeds of it, how someday it will grow.

Deception isn’t solely a human trait—even mantis shrimp can bluff, driving off opponents through threats of force by lifting their appendages and angrily raising their heads, whether or not they are physically capable of backing up these threats. However, purposeful lying, for reasons beyond simple motivations such as safety, is mostly seen only among humans and higher primates. An article from the Daily Mail tells me that by watching monkeys we learn our ability to lie developed  “in order to form coalitions,” that it was born out of our desire to be cooperative in order to gain access to the best food and mates.

I am uncomfortable with deception, and find that practiced by humans confusing, sometimes painful. It is an endless source of frustration to me that people constantly say things that are imprecise or not genuine. As a writer, I am always searching for the precise, for just the right words,  searching for the most effective and convincing way to reach an audience.

An article by AAAS Science tells me that the key to lying convincingly is empathy. You must understand the viewpoint of another in order to be able to craft a lie they will believe. Yet I  want to mean everything I say, whether it is complicated or as simple as let’s have coffee sometime. I want to be purposeful and sincere in my speech, even if sometimes those words are ugly. Sometimes, maybe ugly is necessary. Does this mean that I lack empathy? That I simply have no desire to be cooperative? Or that I believe the truth is important, even when it is difficult to tell?

When my son is older he will lie to me. We will call it growing up, as inevitable as tides, as inevitable as the bright burning sun, as the cold ache of another February spent in Minnesota. It will be just one of the many ways he will break my heart, as all children do. In return I will tell him that I love him. And I will mean it. Every single word.

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